WITH the leaves beginning to lie more thickly on the ground outside, it was appropriate that Scott Brown’s thoughts turned towards those in the autumn of their careers yesterday. It is a group in which he includes himself.
If asked to ponder which players might be prone to bouts of introspection, Brown would not be everyone’s first choice. An uncomplicated but lively presence, he is who Scotland manager Gordon Strachan relies upon to bring vim to the group.
But even Brown admits he has been troubled by the thought that he might never know what it is like to play at a major finals. Time waits for no man, not even someone who concedes he has enjoyed a fairly satisfying career thus far, given the medals and Champions League memories savoured with Celtic. But he knows something is missing from his CV.
It is this thought that he says drives him and others on when we spoke on the eve of Scotland’s home qualifier against Georgia at Ibrox this evening. The identity of the opponents is a reminder of when Scotland were last reckoned to have been presented with their best chance of qualifying for a tournament, back in 2007.
Then under Alex McLeish’s charge, Scotland travelled to Tbilisi requiring four points from their last two games to secure a qualifying play-off place. Wearing a claret-coloured strip, they lost 2-0 against a team including three teenagers, one of whom was a 17-year-old debutant in goal. Although Brown did not play on that bleak evening, he featured in the 2-1 win over Georgia earlier in the campaign, and, along with others, carries the scars from this and other failures.
He now looks around the dressing-room and sees players who, like him, are conscious of time slipping away. At the other end of the scale, he admits he is also amused by the thought that one of their number, the 18-year-old Ryan Gauld, was only two years old when Scotland last made it to a major finals.
Brown insists they are more determined than ever to ensure that this campaign, where second as well as first place secures automatic qualification, is not to go the way of so many others. The midfielder is unable to cope with any more if onlys.
He realises there are a limited number of opportunities left. It might be difficult to comprehend for non-professional athletes, but Brown is already grappling with the sense that his career – at international level at least – is reaching the stage where he is considered a veteran. He is hopeful of tasting an Indian summer with the national side.
At 29, he knows there might not be too many more opportunities to reach a major finals. Should Scotland qualify for Euro 2016, he will be 31. By the time the next World Cup comes around, he will be 33 and, you suspect, in the twilight of an international career that has already yielded 38 caps.
“It definitely bothers me,” he said. “I don’t want to look back over my career and be saying: ‘if I had only done this, if I’d only that…’ I think, when I was younger, I never appreciated it as much as I do now. Looking back on those campaigns, I was thinking: ‘oh, we didn’t get there again. We’re devastated, but we’ll try next time’.
“Now I am starting to think: ‘I might never get there’. There are a few people in that dressing-room the same age as me, maybe a wee bit older, who are probably thinking the same way as well: ‘we’ve not got long left in the game, so we desperately want to get to a major finals’.”
He senses that this is the moment. This is the time. Helping deepen the feeling that Scotland must strike now is Brown’s contention that this is the best group of international players he has been involved with. Of course, players tend always to say this when contemplating a new campaign, but there was something in Brown’s tone that suggested this was something he truly believed.
Looking down the names in the squad, he might well be right. Perhaps only in central defence is there a reason for concern. Brown enthuses not only about the talent, but also the ability to mix with one another. On occasions such as these, when the players are spending so long cooked up in one place, this can count for a lot.
“It’s definitely the best chance we’ve had to qualify, because it’s the best group of lads I’ve been with,” he said. “You can see the team bonding. It’s not people sitting over here and there in little groups, everyone can chat to everyone. There’s a real great bunch of lads here. The manager has done a lot, bringing new players in, talking to them himself. Those are maybe the little differences that will hopefully get us there.
“There’s no room for egos,” continued Brown. “All the lads are down to earth and I think they all realise that anybody could take their place.”
This is a comment that is particularly pertinent to today’s game, and the dilemma Strachan has about whether to play skipper Darren Fletcher or not. No one’s position is safe, not even the captain’s.
He has played only 25 minutes’ worth of first-team football for Manchester United in the five weeks since appearing in Scotland’s opening qualifier against Germany, when he was replaced after just an hour. If Fletcher does not play, then it is Brown who will be handed the captain’s armband. He admits that while this is an honour it is not the be all and end all.
“I’ve got to be honest,” he said. “The captaincy means a lot to whoever gets the honour. Myself, Darren has been captain in the past. Also Gary Caldwell, Kenny Miller. If you ask any of us, of course it is a proud moment. But so is just playing for your country. So is winning with your country. That’s what we all want. It’s not about fighting over a captaincy, it’s about joining together and being more of a team than ever.”
In short, it’s about qualifying for a major finals again.